This time last year, Bo Horvat was representing Canada in Sweden in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, and he could have been in Toronto Monday with Team Canada winning the gold medal of the 2015 World Juniors. However, the Vancouver Canucks value his contributions (namely his faceoff skills, strong two-way positioning, and sense of responsibility) as well as further chances to develop his play too much to let him go for four to five games.
The centre of the Canucks’ fourth line, Horvat’s potential to remain in the NHL this season was made clear near the end of his first nine games, after which, if he remained, his entry-level contract would begin. His first NHL goal came in his seventh game on November 20th against Anaheim; in his eighth game on November 23rd against Chicago he had three assists. After those first nine games the Canucks decided to keep Horvat rather than send him back to the OHL. He has now played 26 games with the Canucks alongside various combinations of Derek Dorsett, Alex Burrows, and Jannik Hansen.
“It would be crazy to play in Canada, Toronto and Montreal, with sold-out arenas,” Horvat told the Vancouver Sun about playing for Canada in the World Juniors. “It would have been fun. But I’m still living the dream here. I’m happy to be playing in the NHL, the highest level you can get to. To be here full-time is awesome.”
Ever since the departure of Manny Malhotra, the Canucks have been lacking a player who is strong and consistent in the faceoff circle. Top centre Henrik Sedin’s faceoffs are so-so, as he sometimes has games with faceoff percentages of over 60% and other games with faceoff percentages of under 40%. As of Thursday afternoon, it had been seven games since he had finished a game with a faceoff percentage at or above 50%.
Currently, Horvat is leading the Canucks in average faceoff percentage with 52.6%, and has been for quite some time. While he struggled in faceoffs in the first few games of January, Horvat has had many games this season in which he has dominated in this area. He is trusted with many defensive zone faceoffs, many of which have led to clean breakouts and goals for the Canucks. On November 23rd, all three of Hansen’s goals, which Horvat assisted on, were the result of hard work by Horvat in the Canucks’ defensive zone through a faceoff win, clean breakout pass and/or battle in the corner.
Positioning, both offensively and defensively, is also one of Horvat’s strengths. With a strong grasp of his role as a centre, Horvat is often in prime spots in the offensive zone (see his first NHL goal on November 20th which he scored from the high slot area, for example). He also backchecks and supports the defence down low in the defensive zone. His two-way play contributes to what Benning calls “a maturity beyond his years” and has several fans prophesying a Selke trophy sometime in Horvat’s future.
His contributions during the span of the World Juniors? On December 30th against San Jose Horvat scored his second NHL goal, a garbage goal that opened scoring for the Canucks in an eventual 3-1 win. Horvat put the puck towards the net, and with traffic created in front of the goalie by Burrows the puck deflected off of a San Jose player. Horvat has continued to centre an effective fourth line that forechecks well, is aggressive on the puck, and creates scoring chances. His line was also responsible for the Canucks’ only goal of the game against Anaheim on December 28th. Scoring in the other two Canucks games during the World Juniors, on January 1st and 3rd, came mainly from the Canucks’ top line and Alex Edler, and Horvat played his lowest minutes since December 7th. However, the Canucks still see value in keeping Horvat on the ice in Vancouver.
“Bo Horvat has proven he can contribute to the success of the Vancouver Canucks,” GM Jim Benning stated in a media release announcing that the Canucks would not release Horvat for the World Juniors. “He is a solid two-way player, strong in the faceoff circle and displays a maturity beyond his years. We’re very pleased with Bo’s play and look forward to watching him develop as an NHL player.”
These games have definitely played a role in Horvat’s development. Coach Willie Desjardins has matched Horvat against some tough competition in the faceoff circle, such as Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf. While Horvat struggled, he has approached these opportunities as learning opportunities.
“It’s just something you have to learn from,” Horvat told The Province of being matched up against Getzlaf. “He (Desjardins) has shown a lot of confidence in me and put me out in key situations like that. But this is something I can build on.”